Welcome to the San Juan Islands
There is magic to be found throughout the San Juan Islands.
Even a complete stranger to the San Juan Islands can thumb through here and quickly realize that these islands, anchored off the Washington coast near Canada, are among the most beautiful island groups in the world.
The western and northern boundaries of the San Juan Islands follow the Canadian border along Haro Strait and Boundary Pass, respectively. Resources vary about which islands constitute the eastern boundary. Even though they are not in San Juan County, we are going to include Cypress and Sinclair Islands in this publication, defining the eastern boundary of the San Juan Islands from Rosario Strait up through Bellingham Channel. The San Juan archipelago, a geological description, includes Canadian Gulf Islands and the offshore islands of several mainland counties.
There are 172 islands in San Juan County, with people residing on 50 of them. The county has about 175 square miles of territory above the high-tide line shared by a little more than 14,000 residents. With the deep cleft of East Sound nearly dividing Orcas Island in half, it is easy to see how there can be over 375 miles of ocean waterfront in the county.
In keeping with the manner of our nations growth, the history of the San Juan Islands is quite colorful. To pick a point of beginning, Lt. Charles Wilkes was commander of The U.S. Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838-1842, now commonly referred to as the Wilkes Expedition. He is credited with the idea of calling the San Juans the Navy Archipelago and as may be expected with his interest in history of the US Navy and the War of 1812, named its principal features for the famous men, ships and battles of the US Navy. As Lt. Wilkes left his mark so to speak, so did Captain George Richards, a surveyor for the British Admiralty and originator of nearly a hundred names appearing on charts of the islands.
In the late 1800s, the US Navy sought to develop harbors of refuge for the purpose of protecting commercial and military vessels should the waterways become blocked by enemy forces. Points on San Juan, Lopez and Shaw Islands were designated for this purpose, with many more planned. As military strategy changed, many of these holdings were sold or transferred to government agencies; some parks on Lopez and Cattle Point on San Juan are the result.
What is missing from this short description of the San Juans is the magic. You might see it first from the deck of a boat, watching the sunset reflected in still waters, or the cry of a bald eagle soaring over Friday Harbor, or the quiet hiss of kayak paddles through a school of salmon at dawn, riding the tide toward a new adventure. But while words fall short, theres no question of their allure.